In 1942, to fulfill its war labor needs, America initiated the Brassero Program with Mexico. Coordinating with the Mexican government, our nation brought in millions of Latinos to work at fixed rates of pay, under set conditions. Simultaneously, hundreds of farmers and companies, circumventing the law, enticed millions more to cross the borders illegally and endure much worse employment conditions.

Not surprisingly, these doors did not magically shut when the program ended in 1965. In central New Jersey, Latino immigration increases at a rate far outstripping the rest of the nation. Mercer County’s foreign-born populations saw a 48 percent growth between 2000 and 2006, and 36 percent of these 71,000 immigrants are Latinos — a number up from 29 percent just four years ago.

By sheer numbers, central New Jersey’s Latinos are showing themselves to be a powerful and growing economic force. To define how strong the Latino financial factor will play in our area, the Princeton Chamber has invited Princeton University professor David Abalos to speak on “The Impact of Hispanic Immigration on the Economy of the Princeton Region,” on Wednesday, November 19, at 7:30 a.m. at the Nassau Club in Princeton. Cost: $30. Visit www.princetonchamber.org.

Abalos knows first hand what it takes for a Latino immigrant family to succeed. His father was one of the vast numbers of Latinos drawn to Detroit to work in the auto industry back in 1928, just in time to see the end of America’s prosperity before the Great Depression. The new immigrant labored at several “Mexican-and Negro-only” factory jobs — the most dangerous and least healthy of which whites completely avoided. “Times were totally horrendous,” says Abalos. “It was the Depression. Dad was always out of work. He cut hair, sold produce, and truly scratched out a living.”

These sacrifices bought young Abalos the American dream. He hitchhiked daily to Ontario to go to a high-level, all-boy’s Catholic high school. This paved the way for his entrance into Marquette University, from which he earned a bachelor’s in religion.

Abalos then came to Princeton Theological Seminary, gaining his Ph.D. in religious studies. He has taught at Seton Hall for 40 years, and since 1981 has also been a visiting professor at Princeton’s politics department.

“How we handle the economic power and economic needs of the Latinos in our area will reflect greatly on us,” says Abalos. “There is a moral imperative here. Natural law trumps national law. And if we treat these people decently, rather than forcing them into the shadows, we will all be the stronger for it.”

Points of origin. Though continuous for the last century, Latino immigration has been less a steady stream lately. Prior to World War I Mexicans were recruited to help first with the railroads, then in mills and packing houses, and periodically to help us gear up for wars. Later they came to help in the auto industry and sugar beet fields.

In 1948, shortly after becoming a protectorate of the United States, Puerto Rico launched Operation Bootstrap, an aggressive industrial and agrarian reform that ultimately failed and resulted in mass unemployment. The solution was to invite thousands of Puerto Rican families onto airplanes and drop them off in New York. Already U.S. citizens, many of these spread throughout New Jersey. Not long after, from 1959 through 1963, the first flood of Cubans came to the United States, seeking refuge from the revolution. Two years later, Dominicans came for the same reason.

Mercer and Middlesex counties saw substantial surges of Peruvians and Colombians in the late 1980s. “Like the Irish, coming at the same time, these were typically well educated families, coming with money in their pockets,” says Abalos. But over the last decade their immigration has been overshadowed by great numbers of Mexicans, Guatemalans, and other Central Americans, with lesser waves of South Americans.

The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, granting amnesty to illegals who had entered before 1982, raised New Jersey’s Latino population nearly tenfold as illegals brought their families north. While the nation has seen a 5-percent rise in foreign born residents over the six years, Mercer County’s 48 percent boom is a little more than one-third Latino, and a little less than one-third Asian. One third of all foreign born residents have arrived since 2000.

Strength or drain? An estimated 29 percent of our area’s foreign born are undocumented and living illegally in the U.S. It is believed that 40 percent of these are Latinos. Yet legal status is in no way tied to economic contribution. As with all new immigrants, Latinos are taking the “tainted” jobs that more established residents shun. They are hired to paint cars because of the high rate of lung disease. They pick the state’s crops and tend to miles of lawns where the pay is appallingly low.

“Legal or not, the great majority of these new Latino immigrants struggle along with everyone in the family working two jobs for $7 to $9 per hour,” says Abalos. Most of these jobs offer only survival, not hope of advancement. While the situation is difficult, most immigrants are making a go of it. Of Mercer County’s 71,000 foreign born, only 5,500 are currently living below the federal poverty line.

“The question of these immigrants being a drain on our economy’s services is truly a bogus issue,” states Abalos emphatically. Illegals do not qualify for food stamps or welfare. As to health care, he notes, “Some of them get it through their jobs, some buy it for their families, and the rest just don’t seek out medical care for lack of cash.” It is not illegal immigrants as a class that fill city hospital emergency rooms with nonpaying customers. It is that great body of uninsured who come from all situations.

Future hopes. It would be a logistical and moral nightmare to attempt to deport America’s 20 million undocumented residents. “It would tear parents away from citizen children; husbands from wives; and separate us from untold billions of tax dollars in the effort,” says Abalos. Also, we would sacrifice a giant workforce.

For the Latino community, Abalos sees great hope. They face the innate bias of differing language, culture, and skin color. But overall, Latinos hold a strong sense of family. “This will allow them to set their children on the one path leading up and out — education,” says Abalos. Currently only a quarter of our area’s Latino immigrants have a high school diploma. But their attendance and performance rates in schools is truly impressive.

Politically, Abalos also sees rays of immigrant hope with our newly elected president. “Here is not a man who will build border walls that will keep out the next Einstein,” Abalos says. “Barack Obama was elected with a strong Latino base who made it clear they were interested in human rights. We must have some visa program or permanent path to citizenship for these people who are currently living in and contributing to our society.”

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